The Great Chefs of Miami

By T.D. Seth McDonough

Formerly agnostic foodies of Miami and Key West may be finding themselves believing that a higher power loves them.  Southern Florida has greedily welcomed more than its fair share of world class chefs opening new fine-dining locales.

In order of appearance, consider first Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, which was born in March 2007 in Miami’s design district. It is the eponymous work of Chef Michael Schwartz, the critically-applauded fresh ingredients guru who has graced Miami’s appetites since the mid 1990’s. Schwartz opened the award-collecting Nemo, which Esquire Magazine declared one of the best new restaurants in America.

Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink is a comfort-fit Neighborhood pub with relaxed prices, but “unrelaxed” standards of cuisine, also recognized as one of the nation’s best restaurants by Esquire Magazine.

“I think the name says it all”, Swartz says. “I set out to create a neighborhood place that feels like the real deal – where you are recognized and welcomed and there’s always something you want on the menu.”

The cause of the “Genuine” in Michael’s title might refer to his cooking ingredients, which Michael ruthlessly puts through the grind of being homemade, whether pasta, French fries, or rabbit terrine.

Or maybe the “Genuine” of the place comes from the bar which serves freshly squeezed juices, as well as Manhattans and Sidecars that give a tip of the glass to the past.

The kitchen is stocked with Schwartz’s longtime affiliation as he has reunited with friend and pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith, who takes care of the desserts at Genuine. She did the same for Schwartz at Nemo, but has since taken a break from the trauma of the kitchen to dabble in national restaurant consulting, and developing her own self-titled line of retail products. But just when she thought she was out, Schwartz pulled her back into the pressure-cooker.

“The opportunity to work with Michael again”, she says without noticeable resentment, “was too wonderful for me to pass up. We are still perfectly matched in the kitchen.”

Bringing Goldsmith out of semi-retirement is another coup for Miami foodies who are offered a double-dose of culinary excellence from savory to sweet.

But South Florida wasn’t satisfied with just one new first-class dining destination. There is also Michael Mina’s restaurant, Bourbon Steak, which is at the Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort & Club in Aventura. Mina and his partner, Andre Agassi, founded the Mina Group, which has sprinkled Mina’s name and cuisine throughout America. But this is not a celebrity lending his initials to a fragrance and promising it will smell like him.

“Chef Mina”, says Bourbon’s executive chef, Andrew Rothschild, “is involved in all aspects of every dish.” Mina has gathered, Rothschild says, “an all-star team…of creative and talented chefs to share”, he says wryly, “in the making of the soup.”

Rothschild is certainly evidence of that: he is a straight-taught culinary guru who has run some of the country’s most acclaimed locations, including Annabelle’s in Florida, and The Marc in Chicago (which was twice determined to be the Best New Restaurant in America by Esquire).

According to Rothschild, being a sibling in the Michael Mina family of chefs improves the cuisine. “We all collaborate…if one chef has a good idea in one place, it will rapidly spread to the other properties.” Rothschild’s voice smiles over the phone as he adds, “Pretty cool, eh?”

The Bourbon is no ordinary steakhouse. Michael Mina has applied classic French technique and presentation to contemporary American meat and potatoes; this is a recipe for fine-cuisine that is catching on. “Without question”, Rothschild says, “you are seeing the rise of the atypical steakhouse…Chef Michael is creating a new genre of high-end luxury dining.”

The Bourbon only allows organic beef near its chefs. Rothschild pays respect to the environmental benefits of this decision: “It’s healthier for our customers”, he says unexcitedly, “and it’s better for the environment”, he says almost yawning, “and we like to support the small farmer.” But the chef’s voice elevates as he reveals his favorite reason for going organic: “Hormone free, antibiotic free beef tastes the best – and there’s no question that it tastes the best.”

Rothschild suggests guests will have little doubt of finding happiness on the Bourbon menu if they go straight to “Michael’s Classics” where he is particularly fond of the Whole-Fried Organic Chicken with Truffled Mac and Cheese, and the Tapioca-Crusted Yellowtail Snapper with Tropical Fruit Basmati, Chili-Lime Vinaigrette.

For dessert, he likes the made-to-order doughnuts, simply because “they’re delicious”, he says as though shocked by the thought of any other flavor.

Meanwhile, South Florida’s fine-dining wealth grew as another iconic chef with too many honors to list. Norman Van Aken opened the restaurant Tavern N Town at the Beachside Resort & Conference Center in Key West (which is a scenic and worthwhile three to four hour drive from Miami). The restaurant features two distinct entities: Tavern – the older child – provides a casual atmosphere of fine dining, while Town – the younger, but more precocious offspring – features a luxurious setting for guests seeking an adventure in world-class fine dining.

“It matches my nature – and many people’s” Van Aken says. “Some days you’re into blue jeans and moccasins and a comfortable coat, while other days you’re into Gucci.”

The menus feature common ingredients, “We use the same nouns”, the James Beard award winner notes, “The same fish goes into each, but while Tavern is a la carte, Town is a tasting menu. If guests will allow me, I ask them if they would like a four, five, or six course meal. I will construct the courses in a way that will show progression from lighter to richer.” Van Aken sounds much like a composer as he describes the movements in his meals. ”There can be a great texture difference between courses. This allows you to be more contemplative between courses so that the mind and body can go along for a ride.”

Town N Tavern are separated by the “touchstone experience” of a central theatre kitchen, which allows guests to see the workings of the chefs, which at times, Van Aken notes, match the standard kitchen metaphor of a ballet, but, “when it gets busy”, he says, “it’s more like a roller derby ballet.”

Conversely, Van Aken says that being able to see the customers changes the experience for the chef. “The guests are not an invisible force,” he says, “they’re a tangible audience in front of you – which means you can watch your hard work go directly to a patron; and you can watch a patron smile as they share food with another guest.”

Van Aken’s career started in Key West and has journeyed around America and back. He was initially drawn to the southern tip of Florida by the artistic, laissez-faire culture.

“People didn’t have attitude”, he says. “The place was made up of voyagers and adventurers and I guess I was one of them.” The chef pauses and then adds with a wink in his voice, “And people didn’t characterize you so quickly, which was good because I had long hair at the time.”

Van Aken suggests that, while the laissez-faire hasn’t left Key West, the food seems to have drifted from its origins. “My attempt”, he says, “is to re-vivify the roots of Key West cuisine. At Tavern I’m able to do some of the flavors without embellishing.”

As if three new original fine-dining destinations weren’t enough for South Florida foodies, the culinary gods have also provided them with new taste on an old friend. The luxury hotel chain, Conrad, unleashed its revitalized Level 25 restaurant & lounge on the patrons of Miami. This fine-dining and wine-tasting experience has taken over the 25th floor of the hotel, allowing guests to feast their eyes on the city as they feast their palate on the work of executive chef Michael Gilligan (former sous chef at the Tides Reach Hotel in Devon, England where Princess Diana was one of the regulars).

Level 25 is the monumental result of two years of renovations to the award-winning restaurant, The Atrio, which now features a striking 30-foot frosted bar (“The Bar”), a wine-tasting room (“The Wine Attic”) and a private dining room (“The Room”), which offers a spectacular corner-office-style view of Biscayne Bay.

The adjustments are neither cosmetic nor vain: two years ago the Conrad went eye-to-eye with a hurricane and lost (to the tune of more than $40 million worth of damages). The rebuilding process has been slow and cramped.

“After the hurricane the whole building was closed.” says chef Gilligan. “We regrouped and, after four weeks we reopened the restaurant service for the guests.” During the continuing renovations, the Atrio played musical rooms as it was moved in and out of different “Rooms” to allow for the work to be done.

“I should have had shares in sheetrock and paneling”, Gilligan chuckles, amidst the ambient noise of his staff finalizing two years of preparation.

The menu at Atrio features a Latin-Asian fusion. “I wanted in my cooking to see the environment I’m in.” Gilligan comments “In Miami there’s a huge Latin economy…Cuban, Venezuelan, Columbian; and obviously, with the heat, Asian food is very fresh, elegant, and simple. I wanted to mix the two.”

The international flavor reflects Gilligan’s career, in which he was born and raised over an English kitchen (literally – his mother gave birth to him in a room above the family-owned pub in Birmingham, England); he apprenticed in England and France, then traveled to America where Robert De Niro recruited him to work for his Myriad Restaurant Group. Gilligan fell in love with Asian flavors while working for master chef, Matsuhisa Nobu, and in Key West he owned and operated a successful Indian restaurant before heading back to New York where he became the executive chef of Antonio’s Ristorante.

If Chef Michael Gilligan is correct that fine-dining can lead to fine-moods, then South Florida foodies (and visitors) should be a pretty happy bunch.

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